Thursday, October 11, 2012

Charlotte Bronte and her Family

The Brontës, Charlotte Brontë and her Family by Rebecca Fraser

I did not imagine that when I picked this book up that it would lead me to reread Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s books, which I had read so long ago. I also waded through Charlotte’s Villette, luckily on my Kindle so I could translate the endless conversations in French. I am planning on reading Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, and Shirley by Charlotte. I have also skimmed the poetry by Anne, Emily and Charlotte—who published as Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell.

Their  Methodist father’s church was situated in an isolated area of Yorkshire, among the uneducated and struggling poor. The five sisters and one brother were dependent on each other’s company. Their mother died when they were young, and their father oversaw their education, teaching Classical languages, current affairs, poetry, and philosophy.

Charlotte and her younger brother Branwell were deeply enmeshed in an imaginary world they created, as if today’s Gamemasters and alternate reality players never left the world of the game to resume normal life. Even when Charlotte went away to school, her thoughts were in that other world.

Elizabeth and Maria contracted tuberculosis while away at school. Charlotte was also brought home. It was too late; the two older girls died, leaving Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell.

Branwell was highly sensitive and passionate, and frustrated by his inability to find the recognition the whole family felt was due him. In his late teens he began drinking and taking opium. He found a position as a tutor, fell in love with the wife of his charges, and was dismissed. His was a life of, addiction, failure and early death.

Emily shunned society, preferring to stay at home and tend their father while Anne and Charlotte went to school in Brussels to prepare to be governesses. The girls excelled in their studies, but after a year were called home when their father needed cataract surgery. Only Charlotte returned for further education.

Charlotte, having lived in such a limited society, fell in love with the school master, the first man to give her attention apart from her family. Later, after publishing her book Jane Eyre, she fell in love with her publisher George Smith. Her suffering, knowing neither man was attainable, was chronicled in her novels.

Emily and Anne both died of Tuberculosis. Charlotte suffered great loneliness, and felt she was doomed to be alone. She was vilified and lionized for Jane Eyre, and did form some friendships. But she was limited by keeping her books a secret from her father, and hid behind her persona of Currer Bell.

Arthur Bell, who had been her father’s curate, reappeared announcing he could not get over his love for Charlotte. After great inner questioning, and with great fear, Charlotte accepted Arthur. He proved to be a perfect companion. Charlotte’s health had never been good,  and she died within a year of marriage. Surely, had Charlotte lived, her writing, which she said rose out of her experiences, would have reflected a different kind of woman than the lonely and alienated creatures of her novels.

Reading Wuthering Heights after Jane Eyre, I was struck by the vast differences in style. Jane Eyre has passion and high emotion, and a strong but submissive heroine who stays true to her ideals. But Charlotte also seems to be working hard to preach the Christian Women’s duty and to adhere to constrained Victorian standards. Emily, on the other hand, has a distinctly modern style of writing, direct, clean, and fresh. Her characters are as twisted as the wind-driven trees on the Yorkshire moors. They are no role models!

I could not help but to compare the Brontës to Jane Austen. Jane was born at the end of the Age of Reason, while the Brontes were products of the Romantic Era. Both were clergy children, growing up in a parsonage and endeavored to adhere to the standard of the Christian woman of her time. Both wrote in childhood.  Jane, like Charlotte, turned down several proposals, but she never found her man. At least Charlotte did marry, and had some months of wedded happiness with a companion who put her needs first. Both women died in their thirties. Both women had close ties to siblings and father, and an absent or alienated mother. And both wrote only what they knew, and were diligent in their adherence to Truth.

Jane Austen is most loved for her bright and sparkling novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. These books are alive with wit and irony, pithy insight, and unexpected turns of events leading to happy marriages. Mansfield Park and Persuasion are darker, their heroines victimized by situation, poverty, and powerlessness. Their heroines are more like Charlotte’s characters Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe. And in the end, a happy marriage is the ultimate goal of the novels of both writers.

Emily, on the other hand, dared to show what can happen if convention puts asunder two souls who nature intended to become one. Readers may not like Marianne married to ‘old’ Brandon, or Jane taking care of the crippled and blind Rochester, but the characters at least have found their proper mates. Catherine and Heathcliff, Linton and Isabella, brought on their own unhappiness by not following their true natures to embrace their proper partners. And consequently, every family member suffers and is blighted.

The cover of Fraser's book said it was 'enthralling," and I have been enthralled by the blasted lives of the Bronte family.